No matter what your age or health status, steering clear of the flu is top priority this time of year. The stuffy head, body aches, high fever and general malaise takes a tremendous toll on both body and mind — and it can hold you down for weeks at a time.
Establishing Herd Immunity
From October through March, doctors' offices, urgent care centers and emergency rooms are flooded with patients battling the flu. People who are elderly (over age 65), those who are very young (under age 2), pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions are at greatest risk of developing flu-related complications, including bacterial pneumonia and sepsis.
The good news: With a flu shot, people who are young, fit and healthy can help protect people in these high-risk groups from the flu through something called "herd immunity." The more people are vaccinated, the less likely it is for the contagious disease to be transmitted to others. Ultimately, it decreases how common flu cases are among the population (aka our “herd”).
"If you give someone a vaccine, it not only helps prevent that person from getting the flu, but it also helps prevent them from giving the flu to someone else," explains Andrea Smith, D.O., a family medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health. "That's herd immunity."
Flu Shot Myths
With the many benefits of a flu shot, why doesn't everyone get vaccinated? According to Dr. Smith, people who skip the flu shot typically cite one of three reasons — all of which are based on ideas that have been proven to be false.
- The flu shot causes the flu. There are two types of flu vaccines, neither of which can cause the flu. One is a dead, inactivated virus. The other contains a single gene from the flu virus. "After getting a flu vaccine, you might get a runny nose or mild fever, but those symptoms only last a few days," says Dr. Smith. "During that time, your body is building up antibodies against the virus, so if you do get hit with the flu, you will be able to fight it."
- I never get the flu. People who are young, healthy and fit often think they don't need to get the flu vaccine because they never get sick. Even if these people don't suffer from flu symptoms, they could still contract the virus and spread it to others.
- I got vaccinated last year and still got the flu. Scientists do their best to create a vaccine that targets the most common strains of the flu virus, but it’s an imperfect science. The typical flu vaccine contains four strains of the virus, based on what was most prevalent the year before. But the flu virus mutates all the time, so there’s always a chance you’ll be infected with a different strain. You might also get the flu during the two-week window between when you get the vaccine and when your body mounts an effective immune response. Nevertheless, getting the flu shot dramatically increases your odds of avoiding the flu and often minimizes how hard it will hit you if you do get it.
The single best thing you can do to stave off the flu — both for yourself and for those you're physically closest to — is to get a flu shot every year. Unfortunately, there are a few groups who are not eligible to receive a flu vaccine:
- Children younger than 6 months of age
- People who have had a severe or life-threatening reaction to the flu vaccine
- People who have a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome (an illness characterized by paralysis) should talk to their doctors before getting the flu vaccine
These groups have to rely on herd immunity to avoid the flu. "So the most responsible thing any of us can do to protect these groups is get vaccinated," Dr. Smith says.
Be proactive by getting your flu shot early in the season. (If you haven’t yet, there’s still value in getting it now.) Be vigilant about handwashing — a standard handwashing routine with soap and water should take 20 to 30 seconds. Most important, stay home and steer clear of people in high-risk groups if you do get sick. The flu is usually contagious for about a week after you notice your first symptom.
Dr. Andrea Smith is a family medicine physician seeing patients of all ages at Henry Ford Medical Center - Detroit Northwest.